New Academy President David Rubin on Oscars Challenges and Becoming First Openly Gay Leader (Q&A)

"We should be spending a lot of time focusing on addressing the question of, 'What is a motion picture?'" the incoming executive tells The Hollywood Reporter.
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David Rubin

David Rubin, a veteran casting director with a long history of service to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was elected the 35th president of the organization on Tuesday night. Shortly after the results were made public, Rubin spoke with The Hollywood Reporter. What follows is a lightly edited version of that conversation, which touches upon the 62-year-old's background, priorities and thoughts about being the first casting director and first openly gay president in the history of his 92-year-old organization.

Take me through Tuesday night's board meeting. Did you go in expecting to be nominated?

To go in with any particular expectations is unreasonable. I have a long history with the Academy — I've been a member for 28 years, I've been a governor for the past six years and an officer for the past three years — and my love for movies and my love for the Academy is well known by everybody here. But I had no expectations at all about the outcome. Also, because nominations and the elections happen on the same night, there's no predicting what will happen. There's an element of excitement in the room and a tremendous kind of collegial support all through the election process. So it was a thrill, and it would have been a thrill regardless of the outcome, but I'm particularly excited to have this be the outcome.

May I ask how many fellow board members ran against you?

I don't think it's appropriate to discuss the election process. It's an internal thing and it doesn't serve anybody to do it.

What would you say to those who would say, "Another white man of a certain age?" John Bailey also got a lot of that...

In my recent position as secretary of the Academy, my bailiwick was membership and governance, so I have very much overseen and supported all of the diversity efforts at the Academy, which are many and varied — there's the A2020 initiative, there's the Academy women's initiative. And I am very pleased and proud of our record in diversifying our membership, which is really where the Academy culture lives. So, frankly, although I am delighted that there are as many women on the executive committees this year as there are, I think the focus for all of us has been on diversifying our membership — I think that that's the biggest effect that we can possibly have on culture — and that can come from people of any race or ethnicity.

How will you be different than Bailey? Is there one major issue that you approach differently?

I think John Bailey and I share all of our views of the impact that the Academy's work and initiatives can have for filmmakers and for audiences globally, so I don't think that there is effectively a difference in our outlook. I have appreciation for international films and for independent films, along with studio films. My focus is on assessing the heartbeat of the Academy, which are its members, and engaging the board of governors in a dialogue on how to best represent our collective membership, and also to celebrate the work of filmmakers. On a day-to-day basis, I may have different points of focus, but I think there's a passion for promoting film globally that every president of the Academy shares.

One of the people you're going to have to work very closely with is the Academy's CEO Dawn Hudson. How would you characterize your relationship with her?

I consider Dawn a good friend and an old friend. I have known Dawn since her days at Film Independent — I was a member of the jury for the Independent Spirit Awards when Dawn ran Film Independent — and was thrilled when she moved over to the Academy. And ever since I've been a governor, I have enjoyed the collaboration. There are few people in this universe that are more passionate about film than Dawn Hudson.

How are you feeling about the progress of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures? There have been a few highly publicized hiccups regarding its budget, start-date and personnel...

It's been wonderful watching that extraordinary Renzo Piano edifice reach its completion under the guidance of founding director Kerry Brougher. As we continue to focus on the exhibitions themselves, we are honestly less concerned with timeline than with quality. Just as if we were releasing a film, we will choose the right moment for our opening and announce it when the time is right.

Some past presidents have treated the job as sort of their primary job and been at the Academy's Beverly Hills headquarters every day. How often do you expect you will be there?

Difficult to say. I have a robust and very satisfying career as a casting director. By the same token, I am fully prepared to devote as much time as it takes to get the job done at the Academy. It's difficult to gauge. I will be at the Academy as often and as long as I'm effective, and otherwise I'll be engage in my creative work as a casting director.

You fought for the establishment of the casting directors branch. Today, we learned that BAFTA is adding an award for casting. Would you also fight for a casting Oscar?

I'm thrilled to read about the BAFTA news this morning. It's great to see my colleagues recognized. I would say let's see what this year will bring. It's impossible to address other than that.

As the line between film and TV blurs, can you imagine a scenario in which the film and TV academies begin working together more or one day even merge, as the Broadcast Film Critics Association and Broadcast Television Journalists Association did this week? One past president of the Academy suggested to me that this might be inevitable...

I don't know about the melding of the two academies, but I do think that we should be spending a lot of time focusing on addressing the question of, 'What is a motion picture?' That's really a continuation of work started this past year. I'm hoping that we can bring together the best and brightest of our filmmaking colleagues to address that question because it's on everybody's mind, and we want to be sure that we are recognizing and extolling the virtues of great storytelling in whatever form it's being digested.

I wonder if you can share a little about your life outside of work. Do you have a family? Do you have any passions or interests?

I am incredibly proud to be the first openly gay president of the Motion Picture Academy. I am a cinephile in the extreme. While I enjoy blockbuster films, my happy place is the Sundance Film Festival, where I can be seen seeing five films each day starting at 8:30 in the morning and coming out blinking like a gopher at 11:30 at night. My interests and my passions very much coincide with my professional life. I grew up in New York and have been an inveterate theatergoer for my entire life, and that's where I think I fell in love with the work of great actors, because theater is the only medium in which the actor is in charge of their performance. And that led me to a career where I get to engage with such talented performers. So I'm a theater junkie — I will go to New York when I see that the theater scene is running away from me, and I will do the same for London. That's where my heart is. I'm a contemporary art collector and an art lover, and I'm really interested in the arts in all its forms. Since I moved to Los Angeles from New York, which was several decades ago, I love the treasure hunt that is Los Angeles, where creativity and arts exist in the least likely place, more often than not on the second floor of a strip mall next to a laundromat. The adventure of finding culture in Los Angeles is part of the fun of living here.

What was the last great movie that you saw?

The Souvenir, which stars Tilda Swinton's daughter [Honor Swinton Byrne], and Tilda's in it, as well, just knocked me out. It's a knockout film, a film that takes its time and doesn't spoon-feed a narrative to the audience, and I appreciated it for all of that. I also was very much taken with the movie Midsommar, which I thought made some very bold choices in its storytelling.